Jim Kirk discusses a new life for the Chicago Sun-Times on WTTW's Chicago Tonight
Sometimes it seems that new owners, new leadership and new new inspiration at the Chicago Sun-Times come as frequently as the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Perhaps someone is keeping track of the changes at the newspaper since Marshall Field V and his brother Ted sold it in 1984 to Rupert Murdoch. But as someone who has spent a lot of years in its newsroom, I know that I've lost count. And with each change the Greek chorus begins its wailing that the end is near.
Not that the paper hasn't had some close calls, some very close ones indeed. The worst came from Conrad Black (the Lord Black of Crossharbour and a convicted felon), whose pillaging of the paper's cash, talent and morale amounted to journalistic rape. It's hard for me to imagine that the second change in ownership since Black was forced out could come close to that kind of defilement.
Yet, such predictions flow, as the paper announced this week that Jim Kirk, a seasoned Chicago journalist, will take the helm in place of the retiring, respected and talented Don Hayner. Rumors are flying, which Kirk is denying, that the new owner is a hands-on proprietor (read: meddler) who intends to take the newspaper in the direction of the New York Post. Kirk is trying to scuttle such talk by noting that he is a son of Chicago who has spent his career here. And, I should add, although he is not saying it, he is unlike the stream of out-of-town and foreign masters who thought that what Chicago really needed was their brand of newspapers.
Such "down-marketing" recalls the famous response given to Rupert Murdoch when he asked a department store executive why he didn't advertise in his tabloid, the New York Post. The executive responded something to the effect: "Because your readers are our shoplifters."
In the same way, it sometimes seemed like some of the Sun-Times' ephemeral leaders were trying to taylor a paper that was directed almost exclusively for Chicago Public School dropouts.
I have learned, in my attendance at the Sun-Times, not to try to guess which direction that Kirk and the new owners will take the paper. Kirk faces not just the difficulty of being the town's "second newspaper," but also all the other structural problems faced by a dynamically changing industry. Lots of people are certain they know how it will turn out; I don't.
But among the paper's special problems is the challenge presented to its cash rich suburb operations, like its Pioneer Press chain focused mainly on the affluent northern suburbs. I don't have to go farther than my mailbox or my computer keyboard to see the kind of competition in store for the Sun-Times' suburban operation.
Among them is a free mailer from 22nd Century Media, the brainchild of a former Illinois Republican U.S.Senate candidate, Jack Ryan. It's a professional and energetic operation that hit the ground running with impressive local coverage. I'm told that the business model already has worked on a chain of papers in the southern suburbs, and now Ryan is targeting the North Shore. (One of the pleasures of reading the paper are the interesting, well-reported and well-written features from Alan Henry, a former Sun-Times and Pioneer Press executive. It's pure journalism and Henry says he has never had as much fun in the business as what he's doing now.)
The other suburban competition comes from the rapidly expanding Patch on-line publications. Also aggressive and energetic, a Patch provides comprehensive and timely coverage tailored for each town. From what I can tell, the Patch could serve as a template for what the Sun-Times and other mainline, traditional media want to come.
For all of the sins laid at its feet, the Sun-Times remains powered by a core of hard-working, dedicated and skilled editors, reporters and other editorial talent, some of which has survived the worst of past owners and managers. Those that I know are dedicated to quality journalism, and I'm sure there are others there whom I don't know. For their sake alone, the success of the Sun-Times is personal.
For the rest of us too, it also should be personal.